Fight for academic tenure

October 3, 1997

David Jobbins reports from Palermo on higher education's preparations for the 1998 Unesco world conference.

UNESCO is almost certain to adopt a recommendation calling on member states to keep academic tenure at its general conference in Paris next month.

The draft recommendation will give university teachers at least the same guarantees on terms and conditions of employment as other waged workers. It has already been circulated and revised by member governments, and its supporters claim it has the backing of "virtually all" faculty organisations across the world.

It says that: "The principle of academic freedom should be scrupulously observed, that is to say the right to freedom of teaching and discussion; freedom in carrying out research and publishing and disseminating the results; freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work; the right to fulfil their functions without discrimination of any kind and without fear of repression by the state or any other source; the right to take part in governing bodies; and the freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies."

In general the recommendation, which is by definition not binding on member countries although it may be politically difficult to ignore it, is largely limited to protection for academics in their professional activities.

It sets out a broad definition of their responsibility to meet ethical and professional standards when responding to contemporary social problems. It then deals with employment rights, in a chapter which was watered down in the discussions with representatives of national governments, and says they should enjoy the same civil, political, social and cultural rights as other citizens.

But it says: "Security of employment in the profession, including tenure or its functional equivalent, where applicable, should be safeguarded as it is essential in the interests of higher education, as well as those of higher education teaching personnel I "Tenure should be safeguarded, as far as possible, even when changes in the organisation of or within a higher education system are madeI" Adoption of the tenure provisions will come at a difficult time for many European countries, which, unlike Britain, are only now facing up to the task of streamlining their academic workforces to ensure better value for public funding coupled with enhanced quality, such as Germany and Italy.

To comply with the recommendation, staff should be dismissed only for proven professional failings.

But representatives of the Paris-based World Federation of Teachers' Unions, which generally supports the package, feel that grounds such as "gross incompetence" are too subjective.

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